What the Frith?! – Watership Down (1978) Review

Watership Down Poster

On paper, an animated film about rabbits looks like the most kid-friendly idea imaginable – they’re fluffy and cute. Job done. But wait, rabbits are low on the food chain and have many natural predators in the wild, so it might not all be so rosy. And If you were to accurately portray the struggles of rabbit life, surely there would be moments of danger and terror when said predators are encountered? It’s here that Watership Down steps up with a resounding ‘yes’. A rabbit’s life is fraught with conflict, which in turn breeds drama and in this case a fantastic film. But a film for the littluns? I’m not so sure.

Watership Down is adapted from the book of the same name by Richard Adams, put together at the behest of his daughters, from the stories he told them during car journeys. In crafting these tales, Adams drew from his experiences in World War II, particularly the battle of Arnhem, which might explain why the rabbits seem to deal with danger around every corner. The film adaptation remains true to the essence of the novel, making sure to highlight the perils of these not-so-fluffy bunnies. It’s gritty drama before it was on HBO.

The tale itself, set around the Hampshire countryside using real locations, follows a group of rabbits led by Hazel (voiced by John Hurt) who decide to abandon their warren after his brother Fiver (Richard Briers) has a disturbing vision of the imminent destruction of their home. With such a rich novel as its base, it’s a credit to director Mark Rosen’s screenplay that we’re brought up to speed quickly with rabbit culture, folklore and society – they’ve even got their own language (sort of). It’s so well structured that when the hraka (rabbit for *ahem* droppings) hits the fan, the tension is that much greater and the risks are that much riskier. Like the book, the film also touches on elements of captivity, death, nature, and most notably government and leadership. I’m not about to say that I gained an early political education from Watership Down but the seeds are there.

The Watership Down-ers have their own Lion King moment.

The Watership Down-ers have their own Lion King moment.

As soon as the opening credits appear, it’s clear that Watership Down is beautifully animated down to the smallest twitch of a rabbits ear, and every bit of it hand-drawn. Every backdrop is a marvellous watercolour painting that evokes a luscious and nostalgic view of the English countryside. It’s very rural in the best kind of way, and the lyrical score doesn’t hurt that either, not even the haunting ‘Bright Eyes’ by Art Garfunkel. Moving on to the voice cast, their performances are all spot on providing much characterisation through their delivery, from Brier’s nervy Fiver to Harry Andrews’s gravel-throated General Woundwort. The standout though is Zero Mostel as Keehar the gull, whose broken English and acerbic attitude provide some brief levity to the life and death proceedings.

As I have hinted at earlier, the film has opted for an often stark approach to nature, and in certain moments it is very red in tooth and claw. It’s by no means a bloodbath but there are enough scenes that the film becomes memorable for not shying away from the red stuff. However, the violence supports the story by raising the stakes and the tension to produce an enduring animated classic…albeit probably requiring a PG certificate rather than a U. Mild peril, anyone?

Up the garden path – Brilliantly misleading DVD covers

They say you should never judge a book by its cover, and it’s quite a good piece of advice. It emphasises a need to be open-minded and not to dismiss anything without experiencing it first, advice that anyone who writes a blog should do well to heed. By extension, the same phrase can be used for the covers of DVDs and Blu-rays, and while most will give you a pretty good idea of what you are in for (unless you are someone who takes things painfully literally), others seem to have misunderstood their source material or worse, never even seen it.

So fantastic is the misrepresentation when it occurs that it simply must be flagged up. Allow me to guide you through two fine examples as I lambaste the errors and dispel the mixed messages…and also appreciate how brilliantly far off the mark these covers really are.

First up we have…

Valhalla Rising DVD

Valhalla Rising

What’s wrong with this cover can be elegantly summed up by the reaction of my friend Matt, who practically read my mind (without prior knowledge) when he asked, “Is it supposed to be 300¬†but with Vikings?”. Nope. No. Not at all. Yes there is violence and yes it is set in the past, but that’s where the similarities end. Valhalla Rising is the story of a mute warrior, held captive, who breaks free and attaches himself to a band (not army!) of Vikings travelling to Jerusalem. It’s presented more as a bleak hallucinogenic nightmare rather than a limb-lopping action blockbuster, and that certainly isn’t conveyed here with block capitals on a generous blood splatter. It’s deception tactics on this cover, desperately trying to increase sales for a film that is not likely to please the average cinema goer. Personally I enjoyed Valhalla Rising, and more than likely because I’m no stranger to Winding Refn – forewarned is forearmed as they say – but it’s certainly not for everyone. Watch the trailer and don’t be fooled.

Next up is…

Upstream Colour DVD

Upstream Colour

The choice of image for this cover completely baffled me when I first saw it. Choosing to depict the one solitary scene in this non-horror film that comes close to horror is odd indeed. I’m not denying that something akin to this occurs in Shane Carruth’s second feature, but in no way does this adequately convey what is a beautiful and intriguing cinematic experience. Upstream Colour is a hard film to describe since it cannot be pigeon-holed into a genre and at times feels¬†more like a visual poem, but it’s not a Cronenberg-ian body-horror, and to suggest such is to miss the point entirely. It’s a shame because a cover like this is likely to draw in horror fans, who will be disappointed, and deter others who might find something to appreciate in its many layers.

What DVD or Blu-ray covers have you found to be misleading? What covers do you think are the most accurate? Feel free to leave your comments below.